In Bruges is a film that unites a lot of people. Funny, violent, and almost universally loved, it set a high bar for writer and director Martin McDonagh when it came to his second movie, Seven Psychopaths. We chatted to McDonagh about both films, and about the snobbery of theatre, too…
There’s a real punctuated pace to Seven Psychopaths. You spend a long time in the film pushing against structure and convention. But as a director, you’ve come at this from a very different direction to In Bruges. I want to come to your writing, too, but I’m interested in how you changed as a director on this one?
I knew it was a more sprawling, more insane structure than the simple. But I never think even about writing in that three act thing, that Robert McKee bullshit. It should feel more organic and natural than that. This, I don’t even know if it does have three acts, or how many acts.
It feels like it doesn’t matter here.
Yeah, yeah. With this, the first hour almost is a phony setup for going to a different, more meditative, spiritual Hollywood film. Still staying somehow within the conventions of a genre movie. But it is: it’s kind of like pressing a pause button on the revenge, and the crazy fun Hollywood gangster thing. We’re not going to do that any more, we’re going to talk about our feelings!
It almost turns at Woody Harrelson in a hospital room. He’s great in this, too. I’ve read that he only came to the film when Mickey Rourke went off and did Mickey Rourke things…
…but the control in his performance is magnetic.
That’s almost the scene, the main scene that’s supposed to be almost the saddest, most horrific, most real, most non-dog kidnapping silly plot. It’s like oh fuck, what kind of film are we in now sort of thing.
I like that your violence is real, too. That if you’re going to show a bullet on screen, show what a bullet actually does.
Yes. That’s for me, too. I’m never about gratuity or the fun of violence. There wasn’t too much on-screen violence in In Bruges, but I wanted all those bullet hits to be horrible and ugly. Real pain, as violence is. Apart from the exploding heads, but you know that’s not the rest of the film’s truth. It’s about showing how nasty and horrible violence is.
Appreciating that this is the most simple, predictable question to ask, it’s nonetheless one that really interests me: how do you write? You’ve talked about not going for the three act structure, and you’ve not gone through ten or 15 years of formal training. It sounds pretentious, but where does it come from? Your brother’s film, The Guard, is also really well written. What’s the source of it all?
For me, I’m not sure. A hundred things. One of them that springs to mind is storytelling. The idea to start telling you something, and you be intrigued by where it’s going to go next. To maybe develop the skill to take that to an interesting place that’s going to surprise both of us. A love of cinema is what’s prompted these two films, and my brother’s one for sure.
We both loved the same films growing up. But then I guess both in The Guard and in this it’s taking an obvious, conventional plot, but only putting it there to turn it on its head and take it to a different, more interesting, darker, sadder place. I guess even In Bruges, it’s two hitman, so you think it’s going to be that.
In Bruges is quite melancholy at the start.
Colin Farrell’s rant about not wanting to be stuck in Bruges, and then being told he’s stuck there for up to two weeks: tonally, there are few clues which way that’s going to go.
Yeah. Good! That worked then!
You must get a lot of people complimenting you on In Bruges! If I’ve got this right though, the chronology is that Seven Psychopaths was written around the same time, if not before.
It was written just after the script for In Bruges was written, but before I had made In Bruges.
What changed in the gestation of it? How did the screenplay evolve? I’m guessing it wasn’t a case of just picking up the script from a few years ago?
No, it was. Literally. I got it out after four years and went to Los Angeles for a couple of months to think about locations specifically. In the original, it says L.A. street corner, or house somewhere, but I didn’t have any images of it. I don’t know Los Angeles, so I had to find the spots, in a very easygoing way. I got it out then, and it was more about making sure the scenes weren’t too baggy, and trimming. But it wasn’t about restructuring or tailoring for actors at all. It was all just about tightening.
We can’t not talk about Sam Rockwell, then, surely one of the most underappreciated actors on the planet.
It’s still a travesty that he didn’t get an Oscar nomination for Moon.
Yes, yes! It’s insane. His body of work is probably better than any actor of his generation.
Moon hinged on Rockwell holding the screen. Had Tom Hanks delivered that performance in that role, he would have won an Oscar.
But then we’ll always remember. Sam’s films are going to stay with us for a long time.
But the scene I wanted to come to, which I suspect is going to be talked about for a long time to come, is his dream ending moment.
[Laughs] It’s one of my favourites.
The sheer glee, and subtle tonal shifts of his performance. You say you didn’t change the script or adapt it to actors. So how did you as a director come to a performance like that?
Rehearsal. I went round to his girlfriend’s house in Los Angeles. He was there on his own, but we rehearsed it in the kitchen. That scene, I was always going to film it, but it was almost written more as voiceover for the images you’re seeing.
It’s his eyes!
Yes! He memorised the whole ten minute speech, acted it all out, playing all the parts in his kitchen. And he began on the floor, he’d be up doing Colin’s accent, he’d be doing the karate chops, gun noises. I was pissing myself laughing. I thought we’ve got to spend as much time filming that around the camp fire as we are taking time doing the actual shootout stuff. The shoot out is funny and silly, but it’s irrelevant. Sam’s performance is the most important thing. So we took one day out of the shooting of the shootout and gave extra time to the campfire stuff.
I always have a couple of weeks rehearsal at least before shooting. It’s more about discussing with the actor who the character is, where he is. During that time we know where to pitch it. On the day, it’s not about reining something in. Especially a scene like that. It’s written to be like that. And the joy of it for Sam as well is there’s no such thing as over the top there.
Just watching it on the monitor while he was doing it, Christopher and Colin were behind laughing. Hopefully it’ll make it to the gag reel. He got so into it, you could hear them laughing, and when they’re laughing, Sam breaks up. He can see how ridiculous the whole thing is. The joy of it is Colin’s character especially is supposed to be ridiculous and insane. The truth of Sam’s playing is he’s not playing it ridiculous, but it’s a ridiculous ending.
The other thing about the film that must have been tempting when it came to write it, and then shoot it, is that you don’t break the fourth wall.
No. It was important always, the whole meta thing is something you have to be careful about. Not being so tongue in cheek. We haven’t tried to be tongue in cheek. Avoiding you’re smug, or feeling that you’re smarter than your audience. We’re not.
There’s a line between feeling that you’re smarter, and treating your audience as intelligent.
There are certain lines where we went ‘does this go too far’? Christopher’s line about your women characters are awful is almost breaking the fourth wall.
That’s the one criticism of movies you make in Seven Psychopaths that probably stings your own film a bit, though. He could be describing your movie.
It’s a terrible and easy get out of jail free card, and I don’t quite get out of jail free. Even that, as meta and outside of the film, it does work truthfully. That’s what Christopher’s character would say in reading that script in the film. So that was probably the one place where it’s trickiest. If it hadn’t worked, and was too smug at all, it would have been locked out in the edit.
I don’t know how it was when you saw it, but usually it gets a big laugh, especially with women. That we’re all in on the joke.
When In Bruges came out and got the reaction that it did, I would imagine that you would have had options there subsequent to it. Appreciating you’ve talked in the past about how much you put into a film, and how you like to step away once you’ve made one, what kind of things did you get offered? Why did you press ahead with this?
I pick and choose what I want to do at any given time, and what not to do, importantly. My agents, I won’t hear about any offers or options. I just won’t hear it. I won’t work on anyone’s else’s script. I won’t write for anyone else. I write my own stuff and make that when the time is right. I didn’t hear if there was a single offer after In Bruges.
You did say around the time you had several other scripts ready to go, though. So why pick this one?
I always liked this. There was a possibility at the time of making In Bruges that I could have gone with this one instead, but it just felt too big for a first feature. There are flashbacks, stories within stories, and the cast is bigger. In Bruges was something I knew from my theatre work. Three characters, one set basically. Keeping the performances true. This was big, and I really liked it. I had another one that was smaller and lower budget, but I thought I might not even get to make a third one, so I should do the one that still felt like it was just beyond my reach.
You’ve talked about how you make a film, it takes two years, then you step away. Does the fun stop once you’ve locked your final cut? As your films aren’t big blockbusters, they need taking around festivals, you do the interview circuit. Is that frustrating, and do you feel it stops you doing other stuff?
Oh no. For me, I like travelling. The last six weeks was Toronto, then a road trip, met up with Sam in certain places, then Colin. So I actually don’t mind this, because I only do this every four years or so. I don’t really see it as selling and promoting. It’s interesting hearing your opinions as a fellow human being. You do it for some kind of connection to people. I enjoy the filmmaking process, too. I enjoy it all. But I don’t think you can grow as a writer if you’re knocking them out back to back. After this, I’ll go travel, see new places, hear different perspectives on the world and have that inform the next piece.
Any idea what the next piece will be?
I’ve got this one with a very strong female lead, which is the reverse of this. It’s called Three Billboards Outside Of Ebbing, Missouri.
With a comma?
Yes! [grins] I like putting commas in titles! That’s good to go, so that’s probably going to be the next one, unless in the next four years I come up with a better one.
One last question, then. I’ve read some earlier interviews with you before, and you’ve said that you’ve changed your view as to where theatre sits. The almost-snobbery of London and New York theatre in particular…
Has cinema, as a result of people being priced out of theatre, become more an audience medium, while theatre is more critic-dominated? It’s easier to get plays going, presumably, but it’s film that resonates more.
I don’t think that’s changed really. It has always been too expensive for one certain type of audience, and I don’t think that’s ever going to change. Even if theatre ticket prices were lower.
There’s always been a snobbery that you have to dress up for theatre. I seldom feel comfortable in a theatre. I always feel like I own a cinema. I feel equally happy in an empty one as a full one. Probably happier in an empty one! There’s something more relaxed about the experience of film. But I think that’s a direct connection between a film and us that you’re never going to get from a play. You’re never going to be able to accidentally stumble on The King Of Comedy or something.
I’ll go back. My plays are always pushing towards cinema anyway. They’re down and dirty, real and more fun. So I’ll keep going back to it. If you’ve got a niche in an artform, why walk away from it, especially if you’re not interested in the money of it.
Martin McDonagh, thank you very much.
Seven Psychopaths is out in UK cinemas now.
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